Top court supports anti-polygamy law

Sister wives from Bountiful BC, Leah Barlow and Ruth Lane speak with the media.



VANCOUVER -- Canada's 120-year-old anti-polygamy law was upheld by the B.C. Supreme Court Wednesday.

Judge Robert Bauman found the prohibition of polygamy is consistent with Canadian international human rights obligations, and aims to prevent harm to women, children and society, and protect the institution of monogamous marriage.

Canada's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, approved of the ruling.

"Polygamy has no place in modern society and the prohibition is consistent with Canadian values, the charter and the Canadian Bill of Rights," he said.

"In our view, polygamy is harmful to society, to those involved with it, particularly to women and to children born within polygamous families."

B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond also welcomed the decision.

"As Chief Justice Robert Bauman recognized, this case is about two competing visions - one of personal harm versus state intrusion," Bond said. "As he clearly found, there is profound harm associated with polygamy, particularly for women and children."

Bauman deemed that women were at elevated risk of physical and psychological harm, domestic violence and abuse, and sexual abuse. Competition for a husband's material and emotional resources could fracture relations with co-wives, leading to depression and mental-health issues, low self-esteem and marital dissatisfaction.

Bauman accepted arguments that children suffer emotional, behavioural and physical problems. Also recorded were higher infant mortality, lower educational achievement, stress, conflict and family tensions.

"We're very pleased with the judgment," said Brent Olthuis, a lawyer representing the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights. "We think that it not only identifies the harms accrued to children in polygamous relationships but recognizes children have rights that in some cases can only be upheld by prohibitions such as in the criminal code."

In his decision, Bauman outlined some of the harm polygamy causes, both on individuals who live within polygamous groups and on the greater good of those groups.

Early marriage for girls leads to health issues from early sexual activity and pregnancies, he wrote.

And young men are forced out of communities, and all children are exposed to harmful gender stereotypes, he added.

The harm polygamy causes on society includes high fertility rates, large families and poverty, Bauman wrote in his decision.

Polygamy creates groups of poor, unmarried men who are statistically predisposed to violence and anti-social behaviour, and institutionalizes gender inequality, patriarchy and authoritarian control.

"There's the phenomenon of the lost boys - young men, youths who are forced out of the community because of the intense competition for young brides," Olthuis noted. "On the side of the young brides, obviously there's a severe harm in their rights to, essentially, be children and not be forced into marriages at ages as young as 13."

The issue was referred to Bauman after the province tried unsuccessfully to prosecute two leaders of the polygamous fundamentalist Mormon commune in Bountiful, a small community in the B.C. interior just north of the U.S. border.

The federal and provincial governments and other interveners fought for the law to be upheld.

Meanwhile, the RCMP launched an investigation earlier this year into allegations that youngsters from Bountiful were transported across the border, in some cases to marry much older men. In B.C. anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 needs the consent of both parents to marry. Those under 16 need judiciary consent. The age of sexual consent in Canada was raised from 14 to 16 in 2008.

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